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Benchmarking as a Tool for Alliance Management

How is the U.S. President using his MBA to shape his country’s foreign policy?

August 6, 2003

How is the U.S. President using his MBA to shape his country's foreign policy?

At the beginning of the 21st century, it is clear that one permanent fixture of setting national interests is the desire to measure how they are best served in collaboration — or in conflict — with other nations.

For the United States, the hegemonic power of the 21st century, that problem is of particular concern. As the one completely dominant power on the world stage, there is hardly a place where the United States does not have some stake, for better or worse.

What is classified as a national interest has been expanding exponentially with the consequences not yet understood. The impact of 9/11 underlined the United States’s connection to the global stage — with all its advantages and disadvantages.

It also proved that the United States that can exercise its dominant power to deal with everything from terrorists to rogue states to global financial crises and disease. And everyone recognizes that.

How does the United States resolve this built-in tension to determine when and how and with whom it engages? That is where George W. Bush’s MBA degree — the first for a U.S. President — becomes highly relevant.

A key determinant to define and execute corporate strategies in the business world is the practice of benchmarking. A benchmark is a standard unit for the basis of comparison. For example, the 3-month federal Treasury bill rate is a benchmark for all U.S. interest rates.

No wonder, then, that in response to these challenges, the Bush Administration has chosen to follow a course that involves benchmarking the abilities and responses of its allies, enemies and competitors.

Given its commitment to a global strategy — which presumes U.S. dominance and the need to use it to ensure stability and security — the Bush White House sees a need to judge the commitments and capabilities of its partners with that same strategy.

Because the United States is understood to be the main target of terrorist groups — and the rogue states assisting them — the measure of the coalitions required will be taken against the mission at stake. And it is the United States that will determine the mission.

Iraq is only one — albeit dramatic — case in point. Because countries like France and Germany did not share the assumption that Saddam Hussein posed an immediate threat to the world, their support was measured against their commitment — or lack thereof — to the U.S. strategy for dealing with global threats embodied by the Iraqi dictator.

Amazingly, but perhaps predictably, the fact that the imminent threat perceived in Baghdad appears to be less clear than the United States argued in February 2003, does not change the certainty of the benchmarks set by the Bush Administration.

Those countries that supported the U.S. position — without necessarily providing a significant amount of military or economic assistance — were benchmarked at a different point on the scale. Indeed, the expectation of political support was far more important than the logistical capabilities.

The benchmarks were thus set according to two areas of focus: First, the degree of political identification with the strategic assessment presented by the Administration with regard to Iraq. And second, the level of responsibility for shaping the environment from which the threat emerged throughout the region.

Given the enormous burden the Bush Administration has assumed with its strategic doctrine of military dominance — and of promoting democracy throughout the world — the desire to be precise about whom they can count on in this effort becomes crucial to the President.

In the post 9/11 mindset, the Bush Administration feels there is simply too much urgency to allow for too much discussion before acting on these problems.

The emerging cases for benchmarking by the United States might soon be North Korea and Iran. The measure of what countries are willing to do to stop Iran from gaining nuclear weapons will be carefully made with the establishment of rewards for compliance — and threats for non-compliance.

It is difficult to judge how those nations being benchmarked will respond to either rewards or threats. What will be the level of tolerance for the interests of the U.S. hegemon, even if those interests are presented not only in American terms but also as global interests — even values to be pursued?

Yet, there can be no escaping the fact that the United States can and will exercise its ability to use a measuring stick to judge how well it is pursuing its own interests and the assistance emerging from its partners.

Disraeli was right in warning us about the volatile nature of the enemies and allies in his world. But he could not have foreseen the unique emergence of an administration that can determine its interests with the global reach that the United States enjoys today.

The two questions remaining are: Who benchmarks the benchmarker to make sure that those interests do serve the global community?

And what will be the fallout from other nations resenting what amounts to a rather crude exercise in enforcing obedience? That is the real danger of the Bush Administration's "benchmarking" exercise.